Doodle: An Interpretation of C.S. Lewis’ Lizard

the-great-divorceIn his small masterwork, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tells the peculiar story of a Ghost being confronted by an Angel. Sitting upon the Ghost’s shoulder is a small lizard, incessantly whispering in his ear. The Ghost is heading back to whence he came because the lizard, who promised to remain silent, repeatedly disturbed the silence of the liminal plain, separating the dark lands and the effervescent mountains, heaven. This is where enlivening conversations take place and the prospect of becoming complete people is presented to comparatively frail and insubstantial ‘Ghosts’ from far off. I really hope you read the entire book. If not then the chapter concerned can be found here.

The Angel offers to free the Ghost from the lizard, who has a powerful hold over him. Despite being embarrassed by it and having to limp away from the splendidly hopeful mountains, back to the dislocated and desolate place he came from, it is unthinkable that the Angel must kill the lizard in order for him to be free. It is an odd event in the narrative. But what is it about?

When the Angel begins to uncouple the lizard and the Ghost it is agonising for the latter. Amidst the dialogical fireworks, the lizard furiously pleas for its life and swears it will be obedient in the future. The Ghost doubts he can endure the hurt, of losing his little companion, or going through with the painful parting that he knows will mean restoration. The Angel needs permission from the Ghost before removing the lizard and giving the Ghost his freedom. Though his suffering feels like dying the Ghost realises, “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”

red-lizardThen, “the Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.” Before the eyes of the narrator the Ghost begins to grow “solider”, “brighter” and “immense”. But something happens to the lizard too. Far from dying, it grows bigger and is transformed, becoming a splendidly silver and white stallion. He who was previously a mere Ghost, leaps onto the horse’s back and together they ride like a shooting star towards the mountains, “into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”

What does it mean? Why did Lewis devote a whole chapter to tell this story? Is he explaining the desperate difficulty of conversion, dying to our self? Is it a picture of mortification, the agony of stripping away the old nature? Perhaps it is an example of the tension between human responsibility and God’s gracious salvation. Could it be the prolepsis of a prevalent theme in Till We Have Faces, as Rowan Williams puts it, “The impossibility of forcing any person to accept love and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself”? While these are fascinating interpretations I am going to suggest something else: a thought I had reading David VanDrunen, Living In God’s Two Kingdoms (especially p43-44).

The cultural mandate, given to Adam and Eve, was to rule and exercise authority over creation. They were to protect the Garden’s holiness, as faithful and obedient custodians. Their covenant with God meant that any challenge or attempt to usurp the Creator’s rule and his imprinted authority on them was to be destroyed. But they, as well as us today, are not the creaturely sovereigns he intended us to be. For the serpent, both a tempter and an intruder, was allowed to defile God’s pure Eden through Adam’s failure in exercising his kingly dominion. The regrettable result of this is highlighted by the author of Hebrews, who says we do not see everything subject to man, as it was meant to be (2:8). So presently the natural world is outside our sphere of control; we are at odds with its formidable force. This is not what the Creator intended. We were created to rule. But Adam’s careless inversion of the created order, placing himself under the dominion of the serpent, would have lasting and disastrous effects for his heirs.

MountainSunrise_0The picture that Lewis paints in this chapter is of wondrous restoration, reclamation of the Creator’s order. What was undone and reversed in Eden is put right. The Ghost no longer cowers beneath the lizard’s persuasive weight. He is not entrapped by its subversive whisperings. He now towers over the glorious stallion as a more magnificent ruler. Lewis’ picture forces our gaze to that everlasting morning. Despite standing somewhere in between, we are not stranded but hopeful, sure that God is making all things new; he will re-invert what Adam wrecked. This is one of the things Lewis does so vividly in The Great Divorce, and throughout his other works; he enlarges our view of glory and God’s restoration.

Reflections: The Starved Space of Improvement

reading in coffee

I discovered a lovely little place the other day while walking the many little streets of my neighborhood. Most of the attention usually falls, quite naturally, to the bustling street with broad pavements and many windows to peep into. But here, on the small narrow road, only 2 blocks long, I found a place which quickly sheltered me from the gusty winds which had suddenly picked up. I was delighted straight away as I entered to see how quaintly this old house had been transformed into the very place any young lady such as I might want to explore. And as the air stilled as I stepped inside I was welcomed by Clair de Lune, a very familiar friend who I had spent much time with growing up behind the ivories, and the homely smell of fresh bread, curry spices and the aroma most captivating to me – coffee on the brew (but there was no judgment present as might be in the thoughts of my acquaintances as they read).

I found so much delight in these simple sights, sounds and smells with the result that my imagination and creativity was immediately illuminated.  It seems antonymous but it is practically inseparable how the imagination is accelerated when the mind is calm; how we often chase after those peaceful moments of reflection. And so as I took a seat in solitude I began to read my new yet dusty pocket edition of F.W. Boreham’s Mushrooms on the Moor. I have taken to his writing quite incessantly and obsessively and at the expense of other authors on my shelf. I was fortunate enough to come across his essays when an old friend cleared out a ton of books of which I was able to sort through and pick and choose from. But on this gusty day, hidden inside, I began to reflect on why I was so attracted to his writings in particular.

If there is a quality so desirable and admirable about a person, text, melody or art, should we not investigate as to why? Often I find myself and hear others saying ‘I just like it’ or ‘I just enjoy it’. But what is it about it that we just love to like and enjoy? Today it seems the culture to simply embrace who you are without question, leaving a starved space for self-improvement; “I am like I am just because, so I like what I like just because I like it.” But if we were intentional about discovering why we like what we like, we could also intentionally implement what we find in our own expressions.

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I must clarify however, that none of this is intended to produce imitations, but rather the intent is to notice the good things, the likable attributes, the admirable qualities in others, ask yourself why they are so, and begin the process yourself. I think when one does that it will become clear that often the thing most captivating is not the act itself but rather the attitude and goal behind it which is expressed in the act. And consequently one might find oneself in a very different place at the end of the road from where they started. Indeed for myself instead of meditating on the refined expressions of others, and more specifically the unavoidable truths revealed in Boreham’s daily reflections, I ended up meditating on my own ability to conclude truth from my daily experiences. While it may have begun with external observation and analysis, the end result was a deeper searching inside of me to ensure I possessed those more captivating qualities, attitudes and attributes.

In conclusion, if I wish to be an effective youth worker the answer is not to necessarily mimic others I’ve seen be effective, but to ensure I have those elementary attitudes of love and concern for people which produce effective relationships. If I desire to be a good speaker and teacher I first need to ensure I have the heart and passion to dispense valuable truth, life-saving and life-transforming truth. And if I want to be a better communicator of truth I need to value it myself and search hard for it in every area of my life; not only in between pages but in between my every breath.

On fear and Christian faithfulness

While helping a friend prepare for one of their exams last week, I found myself getting rather frustrated with the portrayal of views the lecturer clearly disagreed with. Their understanding of other views seemed rather shallow, and their criticisms were stock-standard and fairly superficial. It seemed as if they had not really grappled with what was really going on in the subject. They were just on their way to a presentation of an accepted evangelical view, and they chose the path of least resistance.

As I read a bit more, I was driven to thinking about this year, and some of the issues I’ve become aware of. I was reminded of how massive these issues are, and how terrifyingly complicated. Sure, there are guys who take the easy way out and bury their heads in the sand by either denying issues or superficially dismissing them. But this is just cowardice, and is often seen to be so! [To be fair, this is not what the lecturer usually does – he was teaching a class outside of his area of expertise.]

And to make matters worse, now that I’ve seen how morally reprehensible this easy path is, there is no going back. I am only left with a much harder path before me. And, as I turn my eyes toward it, I’m petrified. If I want to walk that path I have to recognise that there are really (REALLY) difficult questions that everyone is bashing their heads against – even the people who believe the Bible is the Word of God. And I’ve got to face those questions, and try to understand the real issues involved. And look to Scripture, wrestling with the relevant texts. And find various answers, taking into account both the strengths and penetrating criticisms of each view. And, then, before the face of God, I’ve got to take steps forward. I’ve got to develop convictions in this world. Not the world of my forefathers.

It is easy to be patriotic about a world which has passed, for we are the offspring of that world, and we have been reared by its heroes. But those lands which we nostalgically look to held out no security for our heroes. To them, they were entering uncharted territory. They carved the paths for us because they faced the challenges of their day under God. They allowed God to shape, challenge and wrestle with them through his Word.

I ask that God would allow me to be a person of like character. And I thank him for the brave, thoughtful evangelicals whom he has raised up in my day; men of courage, who I can look up to.

Reflection: God’s Grace in Gilead and Reductionism

Marilynne RobinsonLast month I found a second hand copy of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead. The book is a collection of moving memoirs (for lack of a better word) written by an elderly man, whose heart is failing, to his young son, whom he will soon leave behind. John Ames, the father, never expected to have a young wife in his old age, let alone that he’d be leaving a child to the world in his flight from it. And so the warmly honest diary touches on many things, from grieved apology to wondrous reflections on human life and creation, to the painful recounting of his mistakes and pensive thoughts on his sermons and pastoral duties. Gilead is a tale of untold beauty.

One of the features in John Ames’ letter which I found myself rereading over and over was his theological musings. I want to quote one of them and offer my own brief reflection. As he approaches the close, John Ames writes, “the Greek word sozo, which is usually translated ‘saved,’ can also mean healed, restored, that sort of thing. So the conventional translation narrows the meaning of the word in a way that can create false expectations. I thought he [Jack Boughton] should be aware that grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.” What John Ames wants his son to bear in mind, and what struck me, is his caution to narrow and impoverish grace, for God’s initiative to save presents itself in a number of ways. When Jesus Christ saves people he gives life, affirming the goodness of creaturely existence and undoing the disastrous effects of sin.

In my experience, an all too frequent characteristic of Reformed theology is the tendency towards reductionism. Words and concepts are reduced so that they fit snugly within our larger systematic structure and ‘party line’ truisms. Michael Welker defines reductionism as, ‘limiting our understanding of an area to one guiding principle or single key at the expense of all other tools.’ N. T. Wright warns us against an overly reductionistic approach to Scripture. In his essay New Perspectives on Paul, Wright confronts those who would diminish the gospel to a system of salvation, ignoring that Israel’s Messiah was being proclaimed as the world’s true Lord who calls all people to faith. Grace writes us into the greatest story ever told.

Night SkySalvation is more wonderful than a system whereby God makes us right with him, for he remakes creatures for righteous living. Grace is much more than ‘God’s riches at Christ’s expense,’ it is the magnificent divine movement that captures sinful creatures and takes them from rebellion to glory. Being saved is not God’s extraction of sinners from a hopeless world; it is their experience of his new creation both around and in them, as the Lord renews what was broken. As Michael Horton says in The Christian faith, “Scripture does not present us with a choice between the personal and cosmic dimensions of the new creation” (p560). Behold, he makes all things new! That is the greatest tale of untold beauty.

The Jokes We Tell

Yann MartelA friend recently returned my copy of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. Though it has been almost 2 years since I read it, holding the book in my hands resurrected much of the intense emotion I experienced when reading it. Parts of the book are harrowing, others horrendous, yet the brilliance of the writing makes it almost impossible to put down. I must admit that I will need to reread it in order to elucidate Martel’s finer points for myself. Yet the raw and wrenching reaction is, I think, more towards the author’s intention.

After the story has ended Martel provides us with what he calls ‘Games for Gustav’. While giving us a clearer window into actual situations in which many Jews would have found themselves, positing impossible but necessary decisions, these short and somewhat macabre ‘games’ draw out real heartache and sympathy in the reader. I want to quote just one of them, and trust that you will get hold of the book, and allow yourself to be confronted by the ‘games’,

Games for Gustav: number ten

Afterwards, when it’s all over, you overhear a joke.

At the punch line the listeners gasp, bringing their hands to their mouths, and then they roar with laughter.

The joke is about your suffering and your loss.

What is your reaction?

Martel is, if you did not know, writing about the holocaust. Without detracting from his purpose or denying that there are things I have said about the issue which I deeply regret and need to repent of; I want to highlight one place where I believe this sort of hurt is felt today, and is perpetrated by many Christians. It is in the jokes we tell about homosexuals.

One of my closest friends and most encouraging brothers in Christ is gay. As we have walked alongside each other – for more blessed years than I can care to count – he has taught me very much and given me a small window into the struggles that someone who is a Christian and homosexual experiences. Our wonderful friendship often involves him trying to explain the “burden of discomfort, shame, fear, hurt and ostracism” (to use his own words), and me failing to grasp the weight of that burden.

In a brilliant sermon I listened to a while ago, Matthew Jenson speaks about the experience of homosexual desires being ‘excruciating and confusing, desires that heckle and haunt people.’ Our careless words and ‘harmless’ jokes may be gutting someone unknowingly. That person may even be amongst your own group of friends, rather than a person ‘overhearing a joke’. I wonder if you have considered that.